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MRU alumni are defining Calgary’s future

Alumni and community leaders bring big ideas and bold calls to action to the (coffee) table December 7.

Long before you know what triggered upheaval in lives and economies both in Calgary and globally, massive changes in our city were well underway. For at least six years, Calgary’s traditional industries have undergone a massive shakeup, creating a pressing mix of opportunity and, let’s face it, uncertainty. 

COVID-19 has changed cities globally. Speaking on the possibilities for post-pandemic urban centres, a March 2021 World Bank report said, “Cities have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ... build back in a resilient, inclusive and sustainable way.”

In Unmasking the Future, a 2021 scan commissioned by the Calgary Foundation, James Stauch, director of Mount Royal’s Institute for Community Prosperity, wrote that the dawn is rising on “Calgary 4.0”; he says the three previous epochs were summarized by Indigenous stories, British colonial stories and, most recently, stories of “cowboys and oilmen.” There’s no question that Calgary’s future will be profoundly different from it’s past.

So with all that we know, what is the Calgary we want to create? And what are the big ideas to make that happen?

That question will be deliberated at the first Big Ideas, a new series from MRU’s Office of Alumni Relations. In The Future of Cities, Mount Royal alumni and others from our community will share reflections, priorities and calls to action for Calgary’s collective way forward, as they see it.

“I never felt like I fit in”

As a student and young professional in this city, “it always felt like there were parts of Calgary that told me, ‘You don’t belong here,’” says Kylie Woods, an MRU alumna with a Bachelor of Communication — Public Relations (2012), and social entrepreneur who founded Chic Geek.

Now, she says, “Calgary is changing and becoming more inclusive and more representative. There are more and more people who look like me, a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) woman, and we are starting to see a larger train rolling towards diversifying Calgary in tech, government, and energy.”

“My Calgary looks very different…”

With 120 languages spoken, Calgary is Canada’s third most diverse city, according to Calgary Economic Development. As Canada’s largest oil and gas producer, Alberta is also home to wind, solar, bioenergy and geothermal resources. Add key sectors including aerospace, agribusiness, life sciences, creative industries, finance and digital media to reveal a business landscape equally as diverse.

“My Calgary looks very different to me than my grandma’s Calgary looks to her,” says Julia Kaiser, a 2021 graduate of the Bachelor of Communication — Public Relations and Big Ideas moderator.

Calgary has been creeping away from its boom-and-bust economy; it is now home to a burgeoning high-tech ecosystem, punctuated by the recent Amazon Web Services announcement of a $4.3-billion data centre investment that will create 950 jobs; its energy companies are leaner and increasingly focused on renewables and lower carbon intensity; and, with a more diverse population than ever, there is a shared sense that Calgary is no longer (if it ever truly was) a one-horse town.

However, some younger professionals are not sticking around to help shape Calgary’s next era. Despite a 20 per cent increase in Calgary’s overall population in the last decade and its ranking by the Economist Intelligence Unit as North America’s most livable city as recently as 2019, the 20-to-24-year-old demographic is shrinking.

To bring this out-migration into focus, MRU’s Institute for Community Prosperity embarked on 20/20 Vision: Twenty Conversations with Twenty-Somethings about Calgary, a series of informal interviews to generate community reflection and dialogue.

The interviews were revealing both in what was said, and what wasn’t. Focusing less on mentions of jobs or the economy, these conversations with young Calgarians uncovered “questions of artistic and cultural vitality, accessibility (especially transit and food accessibility), inclusivity, disconnection from the corporate downtown culture, and a perceived reactionary political climate that caters to an older generation,” Stauch summarized in Unmasking the Future.

“The 20/20 Vision report reminded us how different everyone can be,” Kaiser says, who worked at the Institute at the time and was a co-author. “Even though everyone was in their twenties the things they talked about really varied. Everyone had a really different perspective.”

Kaiser has had many conversations with friends about their future in Calgary.

“My generation of friends are very experience-based,” she says. “I don’t know if my parents’ generation prioritized it as much. We work hard but we also want to take care of ourselves, to be able to experience the city we live in and do the things we love.”

MRU recently established CityLab, within the Institute for Community Prosperity, which is studying the relationship between a city’s experiences and its capacity to appeal to people to live and invest in a place.

“To attract, retain, and develop talent, Calgary must transition from a place to an experience city — committed to delivering integrated world leading experiences,” wrote senior research fellow Dr. David Finch, PhD. “Today, Calgary produces world-class active, creative and learning experiences. The challenge is they are discrete and isolated, with little or no integration.”

“Calgary’s diversity and experiences aren’t communicated effectively, yet,” Kaiser says. “How we tackle that starts with conversations like Big Ideas to begin a new era of shaping and telling Calgary’s story.”

Kaiser will moderate Big Ideas: The Future of Cities alongside alumni speakers including social entrepreneur Kylie Woods; Courtney Walcott, newly elected municipal councillor for ward eight; Damon Harmon, a tenant-focused commercial real estate expert, as well as community builder Michael Brown, who spear-headed the East Village redevelopment. They’ve got ideas to share and also want to hear yours.

For more information and to register, click here.

Look for a follow-up Future of Cities article on the challenges and opportunities facing Calgary’s downtown core in an upcoming issue of Always Blue.

— Matthew Fox

Three goals from our speakers for Big Ideas: